Some of the more common reasons for using digital technology to organise a collection are:
To free up space: Scanning documents and discarding the paper originals is a very common solution to the problem of overflowing file cabinets and drawers. The same principle can be applied to objects by photographing them.
To make the contents of a collection more portable: Digitised documents, books (see the 4th para of this link), music, mementos, and objects can all be enjoyed anywhere on light, easy to carry, tablet computers.
To provide an index to make it easier to manage and find things: Collections can have their own in-built filing structure (alphabetical order for example, or all electrical goods in one place and all sports equipment in another). However, this requires you to be actually looking at the collection to discern the arrangement and scrutinise its contents. Having a digital index enables the collection’s contents to be inspected at the time and place of your own choosing. It also allows an item to be searched for and, if position information is included in the index, its exact location to be established before visiting the collection itself.
To exploit a collection’s contents: Once digitised there are many different ways in which items can be put to use, made more visible, and just generally enjoyed. For example, documents and photos can be reproduced in books; posters can be produced of various aspects of a family’s history; greetings cards, cushions mugs etc. can all include photos. All these things and more can be achieved quite simply and cheaply using services available on the net; though much can be achieved simply with a home computer and printer. Of course, if you really want to combine the best of the new with the old, you can create a book on your computer, print out the pages, and then bind the pages manually using book binding techniques developed over the centuries.
To get rid of things but still be able to see them: Sometimes you have things which you never really look at or use, and that you think you ought to throw away; but to which you feel an attachment that prevents you from taking that final step of destruction. Digital technology resolves the problem for you. Once digitised the physical artefacts can be destroyed but you will still have the digital images tucked away, taking up no visible space, but always there should you want to take a look.
To make things more visible: Unless a physical collection is deliberately displayed, its contents are usually hidden and have to be accessed to look at. However, the contents of a digital collection can be continually displayed on a computer as a desktop background, a screen saver, or as an image display gadget. Alternatively, they can be displayed on a digital picture frame. Books provide another example: when physical books are displayed on a bookshelf, you can’t see their covers. However, digital book collections are usually displayed on screen with their covers side by side (see the last para of the link). Interestingly, physical book titles have to be read sideways down the spine, whilst in the digital environment a stack of books can be displayed on their sides (see the penultimate para of the link) so that the titles can be read horizontally.
To share copies: The ease with which digital copies can be made and distributed makes it much easier to share digital items than physical items. Of course true sharing, in which only one copy exists but is accessed by two or more people, can also be enabled in the digital environment by the use of cloud services or by the use of a shared computer server.
To record pictures and sounds: These days, we don’t have to choose to use digital technology to take photos or videos of our family, friends, experiences and places we visit: digital photography is the norm. Similarly, the digital recording and playing of music and spoken word books is also the norm. Sometimes people also employ digital recording to capture the spoken memories of their older family members and of local people.
There are, of course, some points to bear in mind before deciding to use a digital approach:
The choice between physical and digital: Physical objects have characteristics which can’t (currently) be replicated digitally, for example, the scent of a love letter, the touch of a fabric, the weight of a medal, or the fragility of a falling-apart book. These are characteristics that we are deciding to destroy when we choose digital over physical. In these cases, a hybrid approach in which a collection has both the physical and digital versions of an object, is worth considering.
Physical naturalness vs digital engineering: People appreciate and make use of the physical things they find and have – they enjoy the simplicity and immediacy of the physical. They may engineer systems around them (for example, put them in albums) but that is usually just for additional enjoyment. In the digital world, however, we are forced into engineering systems. For a start, you need another device (a computer), primed with appropriate software, to enjoy the digital artefacts. So what was a simple and straightforward world of physical things for individuals and the previous generations of their families, has now been encroached upon by an engineered world that requires continuous care and attention in order to access these new digital things. An example which illustrates this tension between physical and digital is the daily To Do List. On the face of it, this is an activity which cries out for digital support: a text list is created, items are crossed of it, and things still on the list at the end of the day need to be transferred to the next day’s list. Despite this, however, some people try the electronic version but then revert back to paper (see the 3rd and 5th paras of this link) citing its immediacy and simplicity.
The fragility of the digital: Our digital systems have many vulnerabilities. For example:
- Both the hardware and the software is prone to developing faults and requiring repair or replacement. They also require periodic updating to enable them to use the newer systems and to operate effectively within the support regimes of the suppliers.
- The inter-connectedness and complexity of computers make them vulnerable to criminals intent on data and identity theft.
- The information that is held on a computer can be totally lost in a system crash, disk crash, computer virus attack, fire, or flood.
- The digital world is complex to understand and sometimes to use. Even if you have figured out how to deal with one type of digital object, there is no guarantee that other objects in your digital collections can be accessed by the same software, or that they can be moved from one software system into another. For example, extracting emails and texts from multiple different services to establish a single file of communications could be very difficult to achieve.
Conversion can sometimes be difficult: Scanners and digital cameras are usually easy to use; but sometimes the demands of the objects being digitised make things more difficult. For example, trying to scan an A3 page, or a whole page of a newspaper, can’t be done on an A4 scanner in one pass. The only way to do it is to make a scan of each part and hope that the reader will make sense of the combined set of images. Similar problems occur when scanning documents with multiple folds in which specific areas are revealed when specific elements are unfolded. The person doing the scanning has to make choices about what elements to scan in what order; and the reader may find it difficult to make sense of the resulting multiplicity of scanned images. Books, too, present a problem if you want to scan them. Sometimes the spine will not bend enough to allow a clear scan up to the spine side of each page. If you want to be able to use a sheet feeder on a book (to avoid the trouble of having to scan each page or pair of pages), it will be necessary to cut the pages from the spine which effectively destroys the book. Photographing objects may also be problematic. There are, of course, the normal challenges of getting appropriate lighting and minimising glare and reflection. Beyond this, however, it can be quite difficult to photograph flat items without making them appear larger or smaller on one side than another. The camera needs to be positioned in exactly the same plane as the item being photographed in order to achieve a picture that isn’t distorted. A tripod can help – but the camera still has to be positioned correctly in the first place.